Oklahoma’s Deadliest Tornado

By Mike Coppock
2/13/2007 • American History

It came without warning, raining hell down upon everyone in its path. In a land accustomed to death descending from the sky, the Woodward tornado of April 9, 1947, still ranks as the deadliest ever to hit Oklahoma. In its wake were the bodies of 185 dead, more than 1,000 injured and a mystery that remains unsolved 60 years later: What happened to 4-year-old Joan Gay Croft, who was taken from the local hospital by two unidentified men in the aftermath of the horrendous storm?

A few days earlier, a warm Pacific low had come ashore and collided with a strong cold front near Amarillo, Texas. Winds just north of Amarillo were clocked at more than 100 mph. Six major tornadoes dropped out of a storm many described as resembling an atomic mushroom cloud. The twister that ravaged Woodward first touched ground near Canadian, Texas. Its base measured 2 miles across, and it retained that killer dimension for six hours as it traveled for 100 miles at speeds reaching 50 mph.

At 7 p.m. it hit Glazier, Texas, some 14 miles from Canadian, killing 16 people and destroying 25 structures. In nearby Higgins, the tornado destroyed all but three buildings. A woman who had crawled under herbed for safety was sucked up into the wire bedsprings when the tornado passed directly over her house. She was one of 45 people killed in the town.

Though Glazier and Higgins were devastated, no word of the approaching disaster reached the Oklahoma towns just across the border from the Texas Panhandle. It was the third day of a national telephone strike, and only emergency operators were running the switchboards across the country. Grace Nix and Bertha Wiggins were the operators on duty in Woodward when they received their first warning. The operator in Shattuck, Okla., fewer than 20 miles from Higgins, called to ask if they were all right. From Shattuck the operator was watching a massive black cloud make its way toward Woodward. A few minutes later, a second call came in from the small town of Cestos to the south. “There’s a dark cloud over Woodward,” the Cestos operator told the two women. “It looks terrible!”

The time of the call was 8 p.m. At 8:15 the tornado leveled the small farming town of Gage, 21 miles southwest of Woodward. The 2-mile-wide funnel rapidly churned through the sagebrush of western Oklahoma, chewing up 60 farmhouses and killing eight people as it raced northeast toward Woodward.

As the distinct funnel form came upon Fargo, the next farming town, 8-year-old Leroy Fennimore ran up Main Street shouting: “We’re going to have a tornado! Yippee!” He had heard about tornadoes but had never seen one. Seconds later Fargo was leveled. Woodward was only 12 minutes away.

Many in the community of 5,000 had remarked on just how muggy the air was that night. Otherwise, it was an ordinary Wednesday evening. Churches held services and other activities. The two downtown movie theaters were filled with high school students. Ingrid Bergman was starring in Rage in Heaven at the Woodward Theater while the Terry Theater was showing The Devil on Wheels. Down the street a few blocks, the local pool hall had its usual patrons. The high school band had just finished practicing for its trip to Alva, Okla., the next day. Two students stayed behind to practice a little more as Paul Nelson got on his bicycle and headed home.

Dr. Joe Duer, head physician at the 28-bed Woodward Hospital, was walking into Gill’s Cafe for his ritual cup of coffee as Erwin Walker drove past on his way to work at the power plant on the north side of town.

The wind was blowing hard now. Large raindrops spattered the sidewalks, followed by hail. Paul Nelson was getting soaked as he peddled harder against the wind, the hailstones striking his back. As the tornado passed over Experimental Lake on the west side of town, it sucked up water colored red by the clay soil typical of Oklahoma. The level of the lake dropped by a foot. The time was 8:42 p.m.

At the power plant, Walker saw the funnel coming directly at him. Live electric lines were snapping all across Woodward. Walker threw the master switch, cutting off the town’s power, just as the tornado struck the building dead center. Walker was killed, but his act was credited later for saving countless lives.

George MacLaren usually stayed at the pool hall until 11 p.m. But as he was about to walk inside, he noticed the fully grown trees in the nearby park bending all the way to the ground. He flagged a taxi and headed for home.

At his cafe, Gill Gillard had just refilled a customer’s cup. The rat-tat-tat of falling hail got everyone’s attention. Gillard turned to look at the barometer hanging on the wall — it had bottomed out. Then the lights went out, and Woodward fell into pitch black save for the violent electrical storm directly overhead flashing brief images all around like massive strobe lights.

MacLaren’s taxi was buffeted by the strong winds as it zigzagged down residential streets to avoid downed trees and power lines. But when MacLaren stepped out of the taxi, everything was calm. No wind, no hail, no rain. Then he noticed the leaves of the trees rushing straight up into the night sky. He ran across his back porch and into the house just as the porch enclosure was torn away.

MacLaren screamed for his children to get down as he ran into the living room. There was a thunderous roar, repeatedly described by survivors as sounding like a freight train coming down on them. MacLaren’s son, Gayner, watched the top of the room’s walls separate from the ceiling, fall back into place and then separate again before the windows imploded. He soon found himself lying in the front yard, rain hitting his face. His father was standing on the rubble that had been their home trying to find Gayner’s younger brother, Merrit, in the debris.

A chill filled the air as sleet and snow began falling. The T-shirt Gayner had put on for bed was now covered with his own blood. He walked over to his father to see if he could help. George MacLaren was pulling loose boards from the pile in a panic to find Merrit when he looked down at his bloodied son. “Are you all right?” George asked. Gayner nodded and his father replied: “Go find help! Hurry!” Gayner ran in the direction of the large fires illuminating downtown. It was now just before 9 p.m.

By this time, Paul Nelson, who had been pelted with red mud from Experimental Lake as he rode his bike home, had gotten into the bathtub to scrub the strange mud off when there was a sudden deafening roar. He looked up to find his house had been lifted away. All that was left was the floor and young Paul sitting naked in the bathtub in the reddish rain. The attached plumbing had prevented the bathtub from going with the house.

His friends who had stayed late to practice at the high school were not so lucky. Their bodies were found in the rubble a few days later.

What sounded like a roaring train could be heard inside both the Woodward and Terry theaters, as well as explosions and screams for help. People tried running out the front door but were stopped by theater staff. One man who made it out of the Terry Theater was picked up by the wind and hurled down the block to his death. Suddenly the building’s roof gave way, and people ducked under the theater seats, whose stiff metal backs kept the fallen ceiling from crushing them. A large, bulky air-conditioning unit broke through a rear door, enabling some to escape into the night.

Elsewhere, one mother heard the tornado coming and tried to go to her children’s bedroom. Without warning, a wall collapsed and pinned her over a lit heating stove. She could feel her back beginning to burn. Desperate, she grabbed at the curtains of a nearby window, yanking them down and stuffing them behind her to snuff out the fire.

Downtown was ablaze as factories, warehouses and the grocery store were in flames. Trees were torn out of the ground. Deadly debris filled the air, falling along with the hail, snow and reddish rain. Streets were blanketed by rubble, bodies, power lines and downed trees. Telephone poles and timber beams were driven into the walls of the Woodward County Courthouse. Above, the sky rippled with an unearthly lightning display.

The 2-mile-wide tornado leveled 100 city blocks with wind speeds ranging from 225 to 440 mph. It exited to the northeast, traveling close to 45 mph toward the Kansas border. There were no fatalities along its new route, but 36 more farmhouses were destroyed in the darkness and 30 more people were injured. Somewhere to the west of Alva, the Woodward tornado lifted back into the storm cloud that had generated it.

In Woodward, Dr. Duer took charge of the hospital that was filling with people — the majority of them children — many of whom had compound fractures. “It just broke your heart,” Duer said later, looking at the children and prioritizing who should be treated first. The Baker Hotel was quickly converted into a hospital for those with minor injuries. The hotel’s windows had been blown out by the storm, but the building was structurally sound, and eventually there were two patients for every bed. All the patients were covered with mud from Experimental Lake. There was no running water, however, to clean wounds, wash patients or flush toilets. One girl’s eyes were so heavily caked with mud that it pinched an optic nerve, and she was left blind for several weeks.

Duer held an infant covered with slivers of wood. “The child looked like a cocklebur,” he said of the baby who died soon afterward. Also he could do nothing for a badly injured young woman in a house across the street from the hospital. A 2×4 had impaled her near the pelvis. The front lawn of the hospital was transformed into a temporary morgue as trucks started going up and down residential streets to collect the dead.

Thelma Irwin was a young mother of two. When the tornado hit, her husband Raymond, who was taking a nap on the living room couch, grabbed their young son, Joe T., and held him to the floor. Thelma had just run into the bedroom where their baby girl, Jennifer, slept when the twister threw a delivery truck through the wall. The next thing Thelma knew, someone was washing her face off with milk as she lay on her front lawn. She closed her eyes for what she thought was a brief moment only to sense she was being lifted. When she opened them, she discovered that she was surrounded by unresponsive bodies lying beside and underneath her. She tried to scream but could not move her mouth. Then she lost consciousness.

When she woke again, she found she was lying among the dead on the front lawn of the hospital still unable to make a sound. Somehow she caught the attention of a passing nurse who took her hand. “Come here, doctor,” Thelma remembered hearing the nurse say. “I don’t think this woman’s dead.”

Searchers found a confused Gayner MacLaren roaming the streets just before midnight and took him to the hospital as he cried: “My brother’s trapped! My brother’s trapped!” A nurse sedated him. He woke up around 3 a.m. on a cot with a reddish bandage around his head and a pool of drying blood beneath him. A person he knew in the cot next to his told him Merrit had been killed.

Scenes of gruesome death were everywhere. The pool hall where George MacLaren was going to spend the evening had been flattened. The five men inside were so badly mangled they could only be identified by their wristwatches. A Mrs. Chance, an elderly woman, had been sucked out of her home and was found in a field rolled in barbed wire. Her granddaughter, who had come to Woodward to visit her, was found in the house covered with planking held to her body by nails.

A Mrs. Boatmann was on her way to the hospital to volunteer when she saw a baby’s arm sticking up from out of the mud. When the little hand moved, she quickly dug the infant up and ran home. She sat the child in the sink to clean the mud away from its eyes, ears and mouth.

A naked little girl covered in red mud was brought to Wilma Nelson’s apartment. She wrapped the child in a blanket and tried to rock her to sleep. But now and then the girl would start screaming, and each time a boom of thunder came, she mumbled, “There goes a tattered wagon rolling down the hill.” When dawn came, Wilma decided to wash the mud off the little girl with dishwater that was still in the kitchen sink. That’s when she discovered the girl was covered with wooden splinters. She rushed her to the hospital only to be told by a nurse that there were more critical injuries to deal with.

Telephone wire chief L.L. Orel and Carl Brown traced down the lines south from Woodward for three miles before being able to flash word to Oklahoma City of the devastation. Eight striking telephone operators reported to work to help with the crisis; a week later, their union dismissed all eight.

As with all tornadoes, the Woodward storm left oddities in its wake. Besides Paul Nelson sitting naked in his bathtub with no house, hundreds of chickens were roaming around without feathers. A milk bottle sat upright and undisturbed at the top of the back steps to a house that was no longer there. The grown children of Sam and Jessie Smith picked their way through the debris field that had been downtown Woodward, bracing for the worst. The Smith home was at the center of the destruction, but they found it unscathed. Their elderly parents were just waking up, unaware the tornado had ever taken place.

Aid rushed in as 3 inches of snow blanketed Woodward. With telephone lines down, local Boy Scouts delivered messages around town on their bikes. Giant bulldozers moved the remains of what had been homes and businesses only 48 hours earlier. The closed Woodward Army Air Base was reopened for housing and was quickly dubbed “Tornado Town.” Barracks were divided into apartments. Families stood guard over rubble in order to prevent looting. One guilty party was caught, jailed for 18 hours and then driven 15 miles from town and told to start walking. The badly injured were flown to Oklahoma City, while the less serious cases were loaded onto freight cars and taken by train to the hospital in Alva.

The bodies of a 12-year-old blonde girl who chewed her fingernails and a 6-week-old baby girl were never identified. Some speculated that the powerful storm blew them in from Texas, even though the farthest a human body was known to have been carried by a tornado was a mile.

The biggest mystery in Woodward, however, was Joan Gay Croft, a little girl who simply vanished in the midst of so much chaos. The four-year old had a pencil-size splinter embedded deep in her left calf. Her mother, Cleta, a telephone operator, had been killed when the tornado struck their home. Her stepfather, Olen, was so badly injured that he was transported to Oklahoma City. Joan and her half-sister, Jerri, ended up in the Woodward hospital, where, after a frantic search, they were located by an aunt. Leaving them in the care of the staff, the girls’ aunt went to volunteer at the hospital in Moreland, 10 miles to the east, where more of the Woodward injured had been taken.

The night after the storm, two men dressed in khaki Army uniforms came into the hospital and asked for Joan. As they started to carry her out, Joan cried, “I don’t want to leave my sister!” One of the men was overheard telling her not to worry. They promised to come right back for the older girl.

Joan’s protests drew the attention of the hospital staff, who challenged the men. One of them said they were friends of the family and were simply taking Joan to another hospital where her family was waiting. The men were allowed to leave with the child. Joan Gay Croft was never seen again.

When he learned that Joan had been taken, Olen Croft, still not entirely recovered from his injuries, hurried back to Woodward. He and Joan’s grandfather, Raymond Goble, went from town to town posting fliers and placing missing persons ads on local radio stations. Goble died soon afterward, however, of a massive heart attack. For the next 40 years, Olen Croft scoured one small, dusty High Plains town after another, following up on a tip, a hunch, a rumor of where Joan might be. He died in 1986.

In 1994 the NBC TV series Unsolved Mysteries aired a story about Joan Croft. Within 48 hours, Joan’s aunt received more than 200 telephone calls with potential leads to her long-lost niece’s whereabouts. One was particularly intriguing: a woman living in Phoenix, Ariz., who had the same blood type as Joan and whose left leg was scarred in the same place where Joan had been injured on the night of the tornado. A Croft family member even stayed with the woman for two weeks and was convinced that almost 50 years of searching had finally come to an end. But DNA tests showed that the woman was not related to the Crofts.

The Croft family never speculated publicly as to the identities of the two men or why they took Joan. But local researchers K.P. Simpson, who interested Unsolved Mysteries in the story, and his son, Rick, developed a few theories of their own.

First, Olen Croft had some money. “He wasn’t what you would call wealthy,” said Rick Simpson. “But he was better off than most were in Woodward at the time.” Joan could have been kidnapped for ransom, but no ransom demand has ever surfaced.

The second theory is that Joan’s mother’s family might have taken her after learning that Cleta had been killed. “You have two men walking into the hospital and asking for her by name,” said Simpson. “How would they know her name? And why did the men ask for her by name and not her half-sister?” According to Simpson, Woodward authorities and Olen Croft himself questioned Cleta’s family. They found nothing to suggest that the family knew anything about Joan’s disappearance. To this day, Joan Gay Croft’s whereabouts are unknown.

This article was written by Mike Coppock and originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

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